At first glance, one would not expect to find a connection between Charlemagne, the eighth-century King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor, and the humble apple. Though best known for his empire building — and indeed, during his long reign Charlemagne perhaps spent more time in the field of battle than among his French subjects — the welfare of his native France was always a special concern for the Emperor. Many of his ordinances have had a profound and lasting effect on the French people.
One of Charlemagne’s lesser-known acts was an ordinance requiring all the farms in Normandy to grow apples. In the nearly 1,300 years since Charlemagne’s reign, Normandy has been conquered and re-conquered many times — by the Vikings, the French, the English, and the Germans — and through it all Normandy has had its apples... lots and lots of apples. By the 16th century some of Normandy’s more industrious farmers were distilling the juice of their excess apples, and thus Calvados, that most delightful of apple brandies, was born.
Calvados is a distilled apple cider, often blended from dozens of different apple varieties, which is aged in oak barrels for no less than two years, and often for much longer. Typically, Calvados is lightly sweet and has flavors and aromas redolent of apples, with hints of other fruits and spices. When bottled young, Calvados can be as fiery as a young whiskey; when well-aged it can be as smooth and supple as a fine Cognac. At its best, Calvados has an innate ability to warm the body and put a smile on the face, making it a perfect wintertime tipple.
So for this month’s Fruit of the Vine, we tasted seven different bottles of Calvados, all of which were from Pays d’Auge, the region in Normandy that generally produces the best Calvados. All of the bottles were good, a few were excellent, and any of them would be delightful on a cold winter’s evening.
The best Calvados in our tasting was Boulard’s Calvados, Pays d’Auge, XO. It is a rich, smooth, sweet, full-bodied, burnt-copper colored blend of twice-distilled apple brandies aged between eight and 40 years. This Calvados has a subtle nose of fresh apples, quince, and citrus with notes of orange blossoms, nutmeg and allspice. Look for flavors of apples and citrus on the palate, turning to quince and raisins, and a long caramel-like finish with just a hint of star-anise.
For those seeking a somewhat younger (and less-expensive) Calvados, a good choice would be Busnel’s Calvados Pays d’Auge, Vieille Reserve VSOP. This bronze colored, sweet, twice-distilled Calvados has a bouquet of baked apples with cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom. Look for flavors of baked apples, cinnamon and wild-flower honey, with hints of citrus, nutmeg and dark chocolate. Although clearly aged, this Calvados still has a pleasant hint of youthful fire.
When looking at a bottle of Calvados on a store shelf it can often be difficult to figure out how long it was aged before bottling. The term “Fine” on the label indicates that Calvados is young, with perhaps as little as two years in the barrel, whereas “XO” or “Hors d’Age” indicates that it was aged for at least six years, and “Vieux,” “VSOP” or “Vieille Reserve” indicates that is was aged somewhere in between. Unlike wine, Calvados will not improve over time after it has been bottled.
Calvados is not a particularly food-friendly drink, and is best enjoyed by itself, as a digestif, or as a palate-cleanser between courses. So the next time the wintertime blues have you feeling down, buck yourself up with a nice snifter of Calvados. You won’t regret it.
Please note: There are many differing opinions regarding the kashrut of Calvados. While some kashrut authorities consider all Calvados to be kosher, some only consider certain brands to be kosher, and some still require formal kosher certification. Those concerned should consult their local rabbi.
Fruit of the Vine appears the second week of the month.
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